20 years ago, I thought turning 30 was just about as old as someone could ever get. Now, it feels like little time has passed since I was writing my Life List in high school. Of all the things I’ve done over the last three decades, travel has been definitely the most worthwhile. Here are the top 30 places I visited (and would recommend visiting!) before 30, and the things I learned along the way. Photo above: 2011 in Quito, Ecuador
1. New York, USA
For the art, pop culture, music, fashion and food, New York is quite simply the most important city in the world. From gritty hot dogs to fine dining, I’ve had some of the best meals of my life here, and I will never get tired of visiting. (Blog posts here and here).
Favourite experience: Broadway (the best time, every time)!
Lesson learned: You only need one night in Times Square to appreciate the iconic destination. There are many other neighbourhoods outside Manhattan that have more to offer.
2. Florence, Italy
Stepping into Florence is like stepping into a watercolour painting. Although choosing my favourite Italian city is a difficult task, Florence’s powerful position during the Renaissance means that this city has architecture and art like no other, and the food of the Tuscany Region is some of the most universally well-loved.
Favourite experience: Walking along the river in the misty summer rain.
Lesson learned: If you want to see David at the Accademia Gallery Museum, book well in advance.
3. Lyon, France
As the gastronomic capital of France, Lyon is a vibrant city with a charming history that is layered and preserved well throughout its various neighbourhoods. I chose Lyon to do my university exchange back in 2008 and would choose it again if given the chance.
Favourite experience: Saturday markets on the Rhône River.
Lesson learned: Instead of trying to hit as many countries as I could in my exchange year, I wish had had invested more money in the city experiencing more of its many wonderful restaurants.
My (first) home country has so much incredible tourism to offer, and is a great “gateway country” to exploring the rest of Asia. It’s safe, friendly, clean, and surprisingly biodiverse (especially when you step out of the main cities). It’s also a haven for all-day (and all-night) snack lovers.
Favourite experience: Driving up the East Coast of Taiwan from Kenting to Taipei with my family.
Lesson learned: Your bag should be stocked with tissues, wet wipes, and a small umbrella at all times.
5. London, UK
You may love or hate the British Monarchy, but the fact that the sun never set on the British Empire for so many years means that this city holds a lot of the rest of the world’s history (and relics). It’s also a great place to visit if you’re a fan of afternoon tea and Sherlock Holmes.
Favourite experience: Watching the Queen’s Birthday Procession outside Buckingham Palace.
Lesson learned: Do your research about the best Brick Lane restaurants beforehand to avoid being tempted by a misleading offer.
There’s a popular Norwegian saying that goes “there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing”. This sums up the spirit of this Scandinavian country well. Norway’s natural beauty is so majestic, and the quality of life is so high, you might not even believe it until you experience it for yourself. (Blog posts here and here).
Favourite experience: Celebrating Norwegian Christmas.
Lesson learned: Budget accordingly, then multiply your budget by 3 just to be sure.
7. New Orleans, USA
If you want to see what true hedonism looks like and you’re down with a little bit of jazz and ghost hunting, New Orleans is the perfect choice. The culinary culture here is more important than literally anything else (with the exception of Mardi Gras), and you definitely won’t go hungry. (Blog posts here, here and here).
Favourite experience: Meeting friends spontaneously at Café du Monde for beignets and chicory coffee.
Lesson learned: 5 days just about the maximum I’d recommend for a pure diet of deep fried food, jambalaya and gumbo.
8. Paris, France
The City of Lights and Romance is both dirtier and more beautiful than I expected, and I was overcome with emotion the whole trip. Explore the big landmarks and museums, but make sure to spend time hunting down the best croissants and pain au chocolat outside of the city centre.
Favourite experience: Taking in the opulence of Versailles.
Lesson learned: Spending New Year’s Eve on Montmarte is not for the faint of heart.
9. Beijing, China
China has changed a lot over the years, and its economic growth is enough of a reason to pay the capital city a visit. Shanghai is probably my favourite city for Chinese food, but there is so much going on in Beijing that you’ll have more than enough to eat and do.
Favourite experience: Climbing the Great Wall of China (I had no athleticism in 2006 and gave up halfway. I came back in 2012 and did it properly).
Lesson learned: By Beijing’s standards, my spice tolerance level hovers at around zero.
10. Toronto, Canada
Toronto is a proper city’s city, and the best thing about living here is that you can get any and every kind of food prepared authentically at a reasonable price. It’s also a great city to watch sports in (if you’re into that kind of thing) and take a trip down to Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake (I’m into that kind of thing).
Favourite experience: Discovering a new favourite spot in Kensington Market.
Lesson learned: You cannot rely on the subway system to get you anywhere on time.
11. Tokyo, Japan
Although I spent little time here, Tokyo is a hotbed of both traditional and modern culture. From a bowl of ten-minute ramen to a high-end omakase experience, Tokyo will change the way you think about your food and how it is prepared.
Favourite experience: Ramen.
Lesson learned: All you need to learn about life and commerce you can learn from Hello Kitty.
12. Istanbul, Turkey
With equal parts Middle Eastern, Asian and European influences, Turkey has special geopolitical significance, and the people, food and culture definitely reflect this. I visited Istanbul as part of a conference and would love to return, especially to visit Cappadocia nearby.
Favourite experience: Admiring the city from on top of Rumeli Castle (which has extremely laissez-faire security measures).
Lesson learned: This was the first country I visited where I didn’t speak a single word of the native language, and I wish I had taken the time to learn a few phrases beforehand.
13. Quito, Ecuador
I often joke that Ecuador was my first (and only!) trip below the Equator, but just by a hair. The biodiversity of Ecuador alone makes it one of the most beautifully underrated countries I’ve ever been to. I spent a month here as a leader on an international summer camp program and would love to visit the Galápagos Islands if given a chance to return.
Favourite experience: Ziplining in Mindo.
Lesson learned: Don’t even attempt to run before you get adjusted to the altitude.
14. Disneyworld (Florida), USA
This one may come as a surprise, but I have spent many happy days willingly trapped in the world of Disney. While there isn’t much of a “culinary culture” to this fabricated amusement park, there is so much joy. Of all the Disney theme parks I’ve visited (California, Paris, Hong Kong), Disneyworld Florida is by far my favourite.
Favourite experience: Meeting Raven-Symoné in Animal Kingdom (and watching the Lion King show that followed).
Lesson learned: If you don’t have any children dragging you down, it is possible to make the most of your 20-something-year-old agility and turn the Disney experience an athletic event.
15. The Gulf Islands, Canada
The Gulf Islands are the islands in the Strait of Georgia, between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia, Canada. As someone who grew up in Vancouver, I never fully appreciated just how magical and rare these islands were, and I’m pretty sure many of the artisans and “healers” living on these islands are actually immortal and just hiding it really well. (Blog post on Salt Spring Island here).
Favourite experience: Doing a sailing expedition around Galiano and Newcastle Island (which has more deer than people).
Lesson learned: Slow things down and cherish the calm and peaceful feeling here.
16. Bangkok, Thailand
According to all recent statistics, Bangkok is the world’s most visited city. 21 million people can’t be wrong, right? By Western standards, it’s really the perfect tourist destination. The street food is amazing, the hospitality is top notch, and the Thai massages cost a tiny fraction of what you might pay in your home country. Also, elephants.
Favourite experience: You haven’t had a proper massage until you’ve had a 3-hour Thai massage.
Lesson learned: Always check on the salinity of the water before jumping in with your eyes open.
17. Rome, Italy
I can’t make a list of places to visit without including Rome, which of course, includes Vatican City. With its religious significance, the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, and opportunity to relive the Lizzie McGuire Movie, Rome is just too important of a city not to visit once in your lifetime.
Favourite experience: Frolicking through the architectural ruins near the Colosseum.
Lesson learned: Don’t be the one person in a group who refuses to wear proper sleeves and pants/skirt who causes the rest of the group to be refused into the Vatican Museum (you know who you are).
18. Marrakech, Morocco
I’m a bit conflicted about Morocco. It’s one of the coolest places I’ve ever been to. However, as much as the trip was filled with luscious colourful carpets, fun patterned tiles and fresh mint tea, the environment and the trip were also incredibly challenging. This is a place I would definitely recommend exploring in your 20’s when you are physically strong and adaptable.
Best (and worst) experience: Taking an overnight camel trek through the Saharan Desert.
Lesson learned: Don’t let other people plan your trip for you.
19. Hong Kong, China
Most people will say that the snack culture alone is worth the trip to Hong Kong. Provided that you’re not afraid of heights, Hong Kong is a fascinating example of a vertically-built city with strong Chinese and British influences (blog post here).
Favourite experience: Climbing all the way up Victoria Peak with my high school friend, Kevin.
Lesson learned: The Michelin Star System in Hong Kong is whack (see my post on One Dim Sum to see what I’m talking about).
I visited both Frankfurt and Weimar on my trip to Germany in October 2008, and absolutely loved the country’s efficiency and beautiful fall colours. I chose to visit Weimar as my friend Man Wai was on exchange at the Bauhaus University at the time, and am so grateful I had the opportunity to really learn about the influential school of design here.
Favourite experience: Sharing a quick bratwurst in a bun with my friend Freddy at the Sunday market in Giessen (just North of Frankfurt), then enjoying a second breakfast prepared by his grandmother.
Lesson learned: I should have added Berlin to the itinerary as well.
21. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Malaysia does multiculturalism like no other country. While Malaysia does suffer a bit from the reputation of being Asia’s most obese country, the obesity is largely because the food here is just so rich and satisfying!
Favourite experience: Hanging out at an amazing resort with the family (mostly because we had a pool in each hotel room).
Lesson learned: While Malaysia can appear to be quite a liberal country at first glance, be mindful that much of the country is Muslim, and certain establishments may have stricter rules.
22. Los Angeles, USA
If you’ve ever watched a Hollywood Movie, Los Angeles will be a worthwhile trip. Visit Disneyland, Universal Studios, the Griffith Observatory, and all the Hollywood things you need to do, then spend some time shopping and eating your brains out.
Favourite experience: Stumbling across a random taco stand and ordering an insanely good burrito (stuffed with French fries) paired perfectly with a Mexican coke.
Lesson learned: Being stuck in traffic can mean the difference between being on time and being two hours late.
23. The Bahamas
I am putting the Bahamas on this list because it is the only Caribbean country I’ve been to, but there are so many incredible islands in the Caribbean that I have yet to visit. All I know is, I’ll never forget the clarity and warmth of that blue water and can understand why people visit the the Bahamas for their one vacation year after year.
Favourite experience: Just floating on the water and walking along the white sandy beach.
Lesson learned: Don’t take a cruise if you want to truly experience the islands.
24. Banff, Canada
When people think about the beauty of Canada, they think of Banff first, and for good reason. F
Favourite experience: Doing the Via Ferrata climb up Mount Norquay.
Lesson learned: If you’re going to go off the marked trial, bring bear spray and solid footwear.
25. Madrid, Spain
While Barcelona often gets the most attention (and I wish I had gone), Madrid is also an incredible Spanish city. Madrid has a very impressive history which becomes evident when you walk by the Plaza Mayor, Temple of Debod, Almudena Cathedral and the Plaza de Cibeles. Add some paella and flamenco to the mix, and you’ll be having a great time in no time.
Favourite experience: Finding great tapas in unexpected places.
Lesson learned: Although you can get pickpocketed anywhere in the world, you should exercise extra precaution here.
26. The Philippines
The Philippines are where my parents met, and the country has some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. If you’re not careful, you may “accidentally” join in a song and dance circle that you didn’t know you were a part of! It’s also proud to boast some of the worst pork (Spam is practically a national meat) and the best pork (lechon, or crispy roast suckling pig, is to die for) dishes in the world.
Favourite experience: Eating halo-halo to cool down after a day-long excursion.
Lesson learned: If people tell you you’re average-sized in North America, you will feel like a giant trying to shove yourself into a jeepney with a group of locals.
27. Chicago, USA
Chicago is an architect’s dream, and an excellent example of urban planning. If you get the chance to take the Architecture Foundation River Cruise, you’ll see what I mean. Second to New York, I think Chicago also has some of the best restaurants in America.
Favourite experience: Having an impromptu dessert overload experience at Rick Bayless’ Mexican sandwich shop, XOCO.
Lesson learned: If you love Garrett’s Popcorn, consider driving in order to bring back loads of the good stuff.
28. Geneva, Switzerland
Clean, wealthy, and always on time, Switzerland is a comforting sight for those who want to see what high quality neutrality looks like. I’ve had dreams about visiting Switzerland since high school and would love to head into the Alps one day as well.
Favourite experience: Visiting the United Nations Headquarters (also a great thing to visit in New York).
Lesson learned: As beautiful as Switzerland is, it is hella expensive and can be a bit boring at times. Planning an itinerary (especially if it includes mountain excursions) is key.
29. Newfoundland, Canada
The haunting and melancholic feeling in the Maritimes is felt the deepest in Newfoundland and Labrador. I had an amazing experience in Central Newfoundland, but had a taste (literally, as you will read in the blog posts) of Fogo Island Inn and St. John’s. If you like whales, icebergs and historical remnants of the Vikings, you’ll find it all here (blog posts are here and here).
Favourite experience: Attending The Gathering with the best chefs in the province, and the crew from 22 Minutes.
Lesson learned: Don’t pick the wild blueberries near an outhouse.
30. Ottawa, Canada and/or Washington, DC, USA
Like most democracies, the last place on my list is a compromise. No matter how you feel about the state of affiars in your country, I think a visit to the capital city is very worthwhile. Ottawa is not the most exciting, but if you want to understand Canada, you have to come here. It’s also the city where I spent my University years, and got my first “real job” (which happened to be in Parliament!). Americans are generally quite patriotic, and after visiting DC for a few days, you would be too. The various museums will keep you occupied (and at little cost) It would have ranked higher on the list if the culinary scene was better (but at least you can get your fill at one of José Andrés’ restaurants).
Favourite experience : Visiting the US Supreme Court (especially as a nerdy law student who had just taken an elective on US Constitutional Law) in DC and skating the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, especially during Winterlude.
Lesson learned: Opt for a very comfortable pair of comfortable shoes and bring plenty of water as these are both cities for powerwalking.
Writing this list has made me nostalgic for the amazing people I’ve met and places I’ve visited with (and for) them in the last 30 years, and I’m looking forward to traveling to many more places in the next 30.
What’s on your list?
Honourable mentions: Montreal (incredible but ran out of room), Venice (worth a visit before it sinks for good, although not as important as Florence and Rome in my eyes), Shanghai (wonderful, but not as important as Beijing), Portland (just the right antidote if you don’t like the rest of the USA), Dallas (if you really really like the USA), Las Vegas (love the food but not so much glitz), San Francisco (close second to Chicago), and Macau (a fun trip but not the most important).
Places I’m planning on visiting over the next decade: Cuba, Sweden, Denmark (have only visited the airport), Iceland, Finland, Macedonia, South Korea (I’ve only managed to go as a 2-year-old and cannot remember a thing), Argentina, Ireland and Scotland, St.Lucia, Austria, Peru, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dubai, Prague, the Netherlands, the rest of the United States and Canada.Please note: a correction has been made to the Florence, Italy entry above, as David lives at the Accademia Gallery Museum and not the Uffizi Gallery Museum.